APPENDIX O. JAPANESE – SOVIET CONFLICT IN SIBERIA, MONGOLIA AND MANCHURIA
[April 1945–5 September 1945]
[Maps: 39.1, 39.2, 39.3, 39.4, 39.5, 39.6]
The final major military actions of the Pacific War, indeed World War II, did not take place in the Pacific, southern china or the plains and jungles of southern and eastern Burma, but in the remote, mountain and desert borders that separate northern Manchuria from Siberia and the even more remote Kuril Islands that separate Japan from the Kamchatka Peninsula. These would not be small-scale engagements—in terms of numbers, the battles fought in Manchuria from 9 August to 26 August, particularly the Battle of Mutanchiang, were some of the largest of the Pacific War. Given that on the day of the invasion, a second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the impact of this late stage military engagement on the course of history is debatable. Indeed, it is the post-war argument about the importance of the soviet Manchurian campaign in bringing about Japan’s surrender vis-à-vis the atom bomb, wherein lies the main significance of the soviet invasion of Manchuria.
Russo-Japanese Relations from the Late Nineteenth Century: At the start of 1941 both Japan and the Soviet Union faced critical issues that superseded their long-term rivalry for dominance in northeast Asia. It was a rivalry that had emerged with imperial Russia’s nineteenth century expansion into the vast, sparsely populated territories of Siberia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Although Russians had started to occupy Siberia as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in ways that can be compared with the later occupation of America by European colonists, it was trade and industrialization that prompted the later more aggressive eastward expansion by the Russian state. Miners, accountants, lawyers and corporations increasingly took the place of Cossack hunters, fur traders and land hungry peasants.
The newcomers created wealth and brought with them the familiar social institutions and culture of civil society in their wake. Peter Semenov-Tyan-Shansky, a leading Russian academic in the fields of botany, zoology and geology, who stayed in Barnaul in 1856–1857, wrote:
“The richness of the mining engineers of Barnaul was expressed not merely in their households and clothes, but more in their educational level, knowledge of science and literature. Barnaul was undoubtedly the most cultured place in Siberia, and I’ve called it Siberian Athens . . .”1
Leading intellectuals such as playwright Anton Chekhov, who travelled through Siberia on his way to Sakhalin Island in 1890, explored the Wild east in the same way that writers such as Mark Twain explored the Wild West [Roughing It, 1972]. Not all travels to the east were voluntary. Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, along with many dissident intellectuals, was exiled to a katorga (penal camp) near Omsk, and pressed into military service in Semey in eastern Khazakhstan. He married his first wife in the mining and ironworking city of Novokuznetzk (literally: the new-smiths).
A cash strapped Russian state, faced by the repayment of a £15m Rothschild loan and seemingly indifferent to the east, and which had sold Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the United States for Us$7.2m in 1867, had by the end of the century woken up to the economic and geopolitical potential of their far flung Siberian empire. Like the United states and the other imperial powers embedded in China and South East Asia, Imperial Russia also looked to the emerging potential of Chinese markets.
The Trans-Siberian Railway Transforms the Geopolitics of Northeast Asia: The new commitment to the Far East was most clearly expressed by the building of the Trans- Siberian railway. Mirroring the experience of the United states, where the completion of Erie Canal in 1825 opened up the west to trade and to settlers, the completion of the Ob River system in 1857 served the same economic and social function. But growth merely brought increased pressure for more infrastructure.
While a 1,680-mile rail link from Moscow to Omsk, in southwestern Siberia had been built earlier, the construction of a 4,000-mile route from Omsk to Vladivostok in the far east of Siberia, beginning late in the nineteenth century, was on a different order of magnitude. The geopolitical importance of this vast enterprise was indicated by the visit of Russia’s crown prince, later Tsar Nicholas II, to Vladivostok in March 1890, where he inaugurated the Far east section of the Trans-Siberian railway. As with the First Transcontinental railroad built in the United States, work started at both ends.
Ironically Prince Nicholas’s stop in Vladivostok was preceded by a visit to Japan, part of a grand round-the-world tour; no country was more radically affected by the building of a Trans-Siberian railway than Japan. A railway that could transport troops and heavy weapons was not just an economic threat. While in Japan, Prince Nicholas was threatened; indeed, he was fortunate to survive an assassination attempt by a policeman assigned to protect him.
China was equally concerned but with its economic and military power in precipitate decline, which became evident with its crushing defeat by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War in 1905, it was Japan that stood as the bulwark to the expansion of Russian power in the east. Diplomatic jostling between Russia and Japan now ensued for suzerainty over Manchuria and Korea. With the completion of the last section of the Trans- Siberian railway in 1904—the Circum-Baikal railway—goods and troops could reach Vladivostok without needing to unload onto ships on Siberia’s vast Lake Baikal. regional rivalry in the Far east led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, which ended with the almost complete annihilation of the Russian Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.
The First World War and the Russian revolution presented further opportunity for Japan to diminish Russian, now soviet, influence in the Far east. Winston Churchill, who had declared that Bolshevism should be “strangled in its cradle,”2 was not alone in his view. in Russia’s eastern empire White Russians overthrew the Bolsheviks in Omsk and Petropavlovsk (Khazakhstan) and moved westwards, capturing Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains on 17 July 1918 with the help of the Czech Legions. They liberated the city shortly after the murder there of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. In Siberia the new Provisional All-Russian Government was established in Omsk and soon came to be dominated by its war minister, Rear-Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who established a dictatorship in Siberia after a coup d’état in October 1918. Meanwhile in Russian central Asia, British-led forces managed to push back Red Army units. In addition, British and American forces seized Murmansk and archangel in northern Russia.
In the spring of 1919 a White Russian Army advance was forced back by the brilliant Red Army commander, General Mikhail Tukhachevsky. In October Omsk, the capital of the Provisional All-Russian Government, fell to the Red Army, starting a retreat to the Far East. In mid-February 1920 the few remaining White Army combatants made their escape across Lake Baikal and joined General Grigory Semyonov, the new leader of the White Russian Army in Siberia. Here they were supported by a joint international force comprising a 70,000 strong Japanese Army, plus 50,000 Czechs, 8,000 Americans, 4,000 Canadians, 2,500 Italians, 2,500 Chinese, 2,000 Poles, 1,500 British and 1,000 French—almost 140,000 troops in aggregate.
It was a difficult alliance. With the largest force, Japan assumed command in Vladivostok and General Otani issued the order:
“I have the honor to inform you that I have been appointed commander of the Japanese Army at Vladivostok, by His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan, and that I am entrusted, unanimously, by the allied Powers, with the command of their armies in the Russian Territory of the Far east.”3
However, there was mismatch in expectations. General William Graves, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force to Siberia, was under orders not to engage with the Bolshevik forces other than in the defense of Us interests. The commitment of the western forces was short-lived. In June 1920 Britain, America, France and Italy withdrew from Vladivostok leaving only the Japanese. Fearful of the arrival of communism within their sphere of geopolitical interest, the Japanese Siberian expeditionary Force remained in Siberia until October 1922 when Prime Minister Tomosaburo Kato, facing increasing criticism of the cost of the expedition, ordered a withdrawal.
The Battle of Lake Khasan and Amur River Clashes: Japan’s exit from Siberia did not mean that their fears of communism and the Soviet Union had receded. The annexation of Manchuria and its absorption into the Japanese empire in 1931, apart from increasing Japan’s economic power and access to natural resources, was in part inspired by the need to thwart the perceived soviet threat. Facing down the threat of communism was one of the common threads in the rival ultranationalist factions in the Japanese Army— though it was the more anti-Soviet imperial Way Faction (Kodoha) which ultimately crushed the control Faction (Toseiha) after the former’s attempted coup d’état in February 1936.
As the Soviet Union consolidated its power and strengthened its armed forces in the Far east, clashes with Japan’s Kwantung Army increased along the disputed borders of the Amur River. Some 152 border incidents between 1932 and 1934 led to Japan being described in 1935 as “fascist enemies” at the Seventh Comintern Congress. Faced by this threat from the east, Stalin increasingly looked toward the nationalist Government in China to help deflect Japan from the Soviet Union’s borders. Thus, in the two years from the autumn of 1937, Chiang Kai-shek’s armies were supplied with 82 tanks, 1,300 artillery pieces, 1,550 trucks, 14,000 machine guns and 50,000 rifles.
In 1935 armed clashes took place at Halhamiao on the border of Mongolia, a Soviet puppet state, in January, at Lake Khanka and Suifenho in eastern Manchuria in June, and at Lake Buir in December. The following year similar border clashes took place in February, March and April. In 1937 Japanese artillery shelled Soviet gunboats when they unloaded troops on the unoccupied island of Kanchazu on the River Amur. crewmen on the sunken gunboats were gunned in the water. Some 37 Soviet troops were killed.
The following year a two-week battle was fought at Lake Khasan when Japanese troops attempted to occupy territory, which they believed had been ceded to them by the Convention of Peking . The commander of the Soviet Far Eastern Armies, General Vasily Blücher, led a force of 23,000 troops against General Kamezo Suetaka’s occupying force of 7,000 troops. In spite of throwing 250 tanks into an attack supported by over 150 bombers, the Soviets were repulsed with heavy losses calculated at over 4,000 casualties. It was a pyrrhic victory. In spite of its success on the battlefield, Japan felt unable to sustain the occupation of Changkufeng and on 10 August, the Japanese ambassador in Moscow requested a peaceful resolution in return for a withdrawal of Japanese troops.
For his losses at the Battle of Lake Khasan, General Blücher was arrested, tortured and killed. His death was part of an extensive purge of ‘enemies of the state’ within the Red Army that saw eight top commanders executed, including the great Marshal Tukhachevsky. In total some 35,000 Soviet officers were purged. Those sent to gulags or executed included 3 of 5 marshals, 13 of 15 generals (of 3 and 4 star rank), 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders and all military commissars. The seeming disarray in the Soviet Army misled Japan’s generals into believing that the Red Army had lost its fighting potency. Reflecting this complacency, they were drawn into an extended border war on the Mongolian-Manchurian border in May 1939. The Battles of Nomonhan, sometimes called the Battles of Khalkhin Gol, are described in more detail in Chapter 3: Japan Versus China: From Phoney War to Total War. The most serious of the inter-war border engagements between Japan and the Soviet Union ended in August 1939 with a severe thrashing of Japan by General Zhukov’s Far Eastern Red Army.
The Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact: But as the Japanese-soviet border war dribbled to a close a more pressing matter was taking Stalin’s attention. On 24 August his foreign minister, Molotov, was authorized to sign the Nazi-Soviet Non Aggression Pact as a prelude to Hitler’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Japanese-soviet border tensions subsided as both parties addressed other priorities. The soviets invaded Finland, engaging in the bitterly fought Winter War, which was only brought to an end by the Treaty of Moscow in March 1940. Furthermore, under the auspices of the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin also annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Japan meanwhile was fully occupied in a total war for the subjugation of China.
A mutual interest in neutrality, favored both Japan and Stalin because it obviated the need to fight on multiple fronts, came to fruition with the signing by foreign ministers Molotov and Matsuoka of the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact on 13 April 1941—slated to last for five years to 13 April 1946.
In practice it lasted for almost the duration of the war. Their long-term geopolitical rivalries may not have been extinguished but the pact continued to serve both nations whose military focus was elsewhere engaged. With the soviets fighting for survival after Hitler’s treacherous invasion of Russia [Operation BARBAROSSA] on 22 June 1941, and Japan’s ongoing war in china and its attack on British and American interests on 8 December 1941, neutrality suited both sides. In spite of Stalin’s alliance with Britain and America, the Soviets, albeit incongruously given their long-term enmity toward Japan, nevertheless maintained a position of studied neutrality—even insisting on the internment of American combatants, such as a crew from the Doolittle raid, who strayed onto Soviet soil. For the time being the fiercest of geopolitical rivals turned their backs on each other.
However, by 1945 the situation was clearly changing. Germany was close to defeat with Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s armies closing in on Berlin. Meanwhile in the summer and autumn of 1944, Japan had suffered naval defeats at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which effectively annihilated the imperial Japanese navy, heralding its defeat to the Western allies. From the start of 1945, Japanese attention turned to negotiating with the soviets for an extension of the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact, due to expire in April 1946.
The ongoing negotiations, which Stalin was only too happy to string along, took a crucial turn on 11 July 1945, when Japan’s foreign minister, Shigenori Togo, sent an urgent telegram to ambassador Naotake Sato in Moscow. it stated,
“The foreign and domestic situation for the empire is very serious, and even the termination of the war is now being considered privately. Therefore the conversations mentioned in my telegram No. 852 are not being limited solely to the objective of closer relations between Japan and the USSR, but we are also sounding out the extent to which we might employ the USSR in connection with the termination of the war.”4
The dove faction within the war council now began a frantic attempt to sue for peace through the good offices of neutral Soviet Union. It was duly suggested that Prince Fumimaro Konoe, the former Japanese prime minister and relative of emperor Hirohito, would travel to Moscow to discuss terms with Stalin. Konoe later claimed, “he had received direct and secret instructions from the emperor to secure peace at any price not withstanding its severity.”5 It was an interesting account, though one of doubtful veracity. as ever with Japan’s internal politics, the facts are murky; Togo later disputed Konoe’s version.
In Moscow the soviets spun out the discussions and asked for details. For Ambassador Sato, the information as to Tokyo’s suggested terms of surrender, were annoyingly vague—reflecting the disagreement and paralysis within the War council. By the 27 July, Sato was becoming increasingly frustrated by his colleagues’ apparent vacillation in Tokyo: “It is absolutely impossible to cause the soviet government to make a move with such a non-committal attitude on our part.”6 In spite of Sato’s entreaties and the ultimatum presented by the allies in the Potsdam Declaration, Foreign Minister Togo, with no clear mandate from the War council, continued to fob him off—leading Sato to make an even more desperate plea for clarity on 3 August: “So long as we propose sending a special envoy [to Moscow] without at the same time having a concrete plan for ending the war . . . the Russians will politely refuse to receive [him and we are wasting valuable time while Japan is being destroyed].”7 It seems that only Japanese representatives outside of Japan could see the futility of fighting on.
The real problem faced by Togo was that he was a dove in a war council effectively controlled by ultranationalist generals and admirals. Prime Minister Baron Kantaro Suzuki, a retired admiral, also wavered in his quest for peace, even after the dropping of an atom bomb on Hiroshima changed the nature of the internal debate in Japan’s councils of war. [See Chapter 40: Potsdam, Hirohito, and the Atom Bomb]
The Yalta Conference: Held just outside the Black sea resort of Yalta on 4–11 February 1945, the conference, at the Livadia Palace, the summer residence of Tsar Nicholas II, was the second and last meeting of the big three allied leaders, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. By the time of the next meeting at Potsdam, Roosevelt was dead (replaced by Harry Truman), a not unexpected event to those who observed the dying President at Yalta, while Churchill, less expectedly, lost the British election mid-conference and was replaced by the Labour Party leader and new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. By the end of the Potsdam conference, of the original big three, Stalin was the last man standing.
At Yalta the allies sat down to deal with the fraught issue of how to divide the world after the war ended. Victory was now in sight in both Europe and the Pacific. all the leaders arrived in Yalta with an agenda. Stalin’s priority was to carve out an area of influence in central Europe—an essential buffer as he saw it for the soviet Union’s security. The future of Poland became the main fulcrum of debate. Churchill, whose nation was by now seen as the weakest of the three, modestly pressed for free elections and, as ever, Churchill, aside the issue of Poland, was most preoccupied by Britain’s retention of its empire.
Roosevelt’s pet project meanwhile was ‘international trusteeships’ and the concept of collective security provided by a United nations organization. Meanwhile he wanted Stalin, above all else, to turn his military attentions to help finish off Japan in Manchuria and northern China and to attack Japan in support of the planned Us offensive. Roosevelt did not want Us troops to carry the burden of casualties in the Far east alone; he did not need the example of Iwo Jima, whose invasion by US Marines followed a week after the Yalta conference ended, to remind him of the ferocity of battle with Japanese troops, who, in the island campaigns of the Pacific War, had suffered average death rates of more than 97 percent.
It was already clear to America’s commander in chief that the conquest of Japan, if it came to that, would be a bloody affair with a level of casualties that would potentially be unacceptable to the American people. “Russia’s entry at an early a date as possible consistent with her ability to engage in offensive operations,”8 the Us joint chiefs of staff advised Roosevelt in January 1945, “is necessary to provide maximum assistance to our Pacific Operations.”9 The atom bomb at this point was still an uncertain project.
As a quid pro quo for his promising to declare war on Japan within three months of defeating Germany, Stalin demanded that Mongolia should be autonomous and permanently separated from china—in effect a soviet satellite state. He also demanded control of Manchuria’s railways and Port Arthur (Lushunkou) as well as the return of Sakhalin Island and the Kurils, which had been lost to Japan at the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1906.
Roosevelt was happy to accede to these requests and even suggested that Port Arthur be turned into an international free port, hoping that this would be a model that Churchill would follow in Hong Kong. However, with regards to Stalin’s claims in china, Roosevelt added a proviso, “that the agreement concerning Outer Mongolia and the ports and railroads . . . will require concurrence of General Chiang Kai-shek.”10 To help sell the deal to Chiang, Roosevelt dispatched ambassador Patrick Hurley to Chongqing to assure Chiang that the US had sought and achieved Stalin’s support for a unified china under Kuomintang control.
Overall Roosevelt was happy with the deal, particularly with obtaining Stalin’s agreement to attack Japan. “This makes the trip worthwhile,”11 Roosevelt told his chief of staff, Admiral Leahy.
Japanese Preparations for the Defense of Manchuria: With Japan engaged, as they thought, in peace discussions with the Soviet Union, the last thing that the leader in Tokyo expected was a soviet invasion of Manchuria. Foreign Minister Togo knew that the Soviets were aware that Japan was already seriously discussing acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration in the wake of Hiroshima. So when he was aroused from his sleep at 3.00 a.m. on 9 August and given the news, he was astonished.
On the ground Japanese commanders had not been so sanguine. in the preceding months there had been a noticeable increase in soviet activity in terms of patrols and military exercises—particularly on Manchuria’s eastern Front. The local reports were at odds with the upbeat assessments from high command about soviet intentions. as Japanese officers later reported, “during July and August, the division received information from subordinate and lateral units indicating the gravity of the situation with regard to the Ussr. This information was utterly inconsistent with the optimistic information received from high command.”12 Lieutenant-colonel Genichiro Arinuma and Major Kyoji Takasugi, staff officers at the Kwantung Army HQ, noted after the war, “during May 1945 the intelligence section of the Kwantung Army Headquarters, reporting on the soviet build-up along the border, estimated that war with the soviets during 1945 was unlikely.”13 As for the increasing volume of border incidents, the Kwantung Army HQ intelligence section put this down to simply an increase in soviet reconnaissance—an example of either idiocy or wishful thinking.
It was further noted that it was the rainy season and hardly a propitious time to launch an invasion. If an invasion was to come the approaching dry season in September was considered more likely. as colonel Hiroshi Matsumoto reported after the war, “during the summer, the high water and flood season occurs.”14 Whatever the expectations on the frontlines, the leadership of Japanese forces in Manchuria had been revising their defense operations since April 1945. at this date, Tokyo had recalled most of the elite units back to Japan in preparation for the defense of the motherland. The defense of Manchuria was not only depleted of experienced units but was divested of a high percentage of its equipment—including some 50 percent of its anti-tank guns.
Given these actions by Japan’s army commanders in Tokyo, after April there was a desperate scramble to recruit new troops to make up for the shortfalls. Some 6 out of 10 of the First Area Army’s divisions were forced to draw on Japanese residents in Manchuria whose economic importance had previously caused their recruitment to be deferred. as General Kita noted, “none of the First Area Army’s major tactical units had been in existence more than seven months, except the 112th Division and the 1st Mobile Division . . .”15 In addition, almost none of the commanders of Japan’s Manchurian defense forces had been in command of their units for more than a year. Kita concluded “in almost every respect the First Area Army was below standards.”16 Internally it was reported that “the recruits brought into the new units had had no prior military training, and the ability and morale of officers left much to be desired.”17 The combat effectiveness of its divisions, a seemingly impressive tally of 700,000 troops, was estimated at 35 percent or less.
What equipment was left to the border forces was in a parlous state. Rifles and artillery were the most antiquated models. Heavy and light machine guns and grenade dischargers were less than half the authorized number. There was even a shortage of bayonets and swords. Ordnance departments set about “forging them out of springs of scrapped motor cars.”18 Other improvised weapons included metal-tipped bamboo spears and explosive packs to be carried by suicide bombers to place underneath tanks—a crude replacement for the anti-tank guns. Rifle rounds per infantryman were limited to 100 and field artillery shells to 500. As well as munitions, fuel was also in short supply. The Kwantung Army’s only plentiful supplies, in sharp contrast to the Japanese armies in the Pacific in 1944, were food.
Furthermore, with the culling of Japan’s Manchurian workforce to man new divisions, there was an acute shortage of manual labor and many of the fortifications, planned in the new defense plan drawn up on 19 April, were only half completed. In addition, the failing railway network had only been able to transport some 70 percent of military stores from forward areas to safer positions further back. Most of the underground storage facilities, which were needed because of soviet air and artillery superiority, were left un-built because of shortages of materials and labor.
After April 1945 all pretense that the Manchurian Army had offensive capability was scrapped. a revised defense plan called for lightly manned border garrisons, whose role in event of attack would be to hold up a soviet invasion. The main bodies of troops would be pulled back some 50–100 miles from the border for a defense in depth. On the northeastern Front, where Japanese and soviet soldiers faced each other in close proximity across the Ussuri River, two fallback Japanese defensive lines were in the process of being constructed, one 50 miles from the border and the other around Mutanchiang some 100 miles distant. Defense would be in depth. as colonel Akiji Kawada, operations officer of the 5th Army Headquarters noted, the forward projection of the 5th Army was unsatisfactory “because it was too extensive a line to be defended by three divisions and, furthermore, from the viewpoint of terrain and positions was unsuitable for prolonged resistance.”19
In August 1945, as the Japanese commanders in Manchuria were bracing themselves for the possibility of a Soviet invasion, its capability to sustain a competent defensive action was severely constrained. as colonel Kawada complained, “The shortage of ammunition, explosives, and automotive fuel was particularly acute in the Fifth Army, and led to the belief that it was quite impossible for the army to fight an extended war of resistance.”20 At best, senior commanders believed that they would be able to hold out for little more than a month.
Deployment of Soviet Forces: Unknown to imperial Japan’s generals in Tokyo the Russian Army had been preparing for the launch of an invasion of Manchuria since the agreements made at Yalta. Although one Japanese spy alone “counted 195 military trains, which he estimated were laden with 64,000 troops, 120 tanks, about 2,800 trucks, 500 fighter aircraft, and over 1,000 guns of various calibers,”21 Imperial Army HQ in Tokyo did not believe that the soviet Union was preparing for war.
The strategic plan was simple enough. Some 1.5 million troops were assembled on the northern borders of Manchuria. While a minor thrust would come from the north (2nd Far East Army Group), on the northeastern border adjacent to Vladivostok a major attack would be launched by the 1st Far East Army Group at the same time that Soviet-Mongolian forces from the Trans-Baikal Military District would race across the desert wastes of inner Mongolia to attack Japanese positions from the west. all three axes would converge on the central plains of Manchuria around the northern city of Harbin and then drive south toward Mukden.
The invasion was planned by a Stalin favorite, Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky, an officer who had come to the fore at the Battle of Moscow. By the summer of 1945 Vasilevsky had the advantage of a virtually unlimited supply of troops, which could be released from the west. Maintaining a cloak of secrecy, 800,000 troops were transferred by rail to the Soviet’s Far East Front. a further advantage was that war matériel was plentiful. With 692 tanks and self-propelled guns, 2,945 mortars and 432 rocket launchers the Soviet forces were heavily armed for a devastating attack. in support they could count on the use of almost 1,000 aircraft. In all areas of aircraft and heavy armament, the Kwantung Army in Manchuria was outnumbered by 5 to 1.
If the strategic plan was relatively straightforward, the logistical and tactical elements were not. Logistics had been carefully prepared for the task ahead with due regard to the extreme variables in weather and terrain expected along the lines of attack. Pontoon bridges, a-3 boats and self-crafted rafts were prepared for river crossings on the northeast front. roads through the swamps on the Russian side of the border were covertly constructed at night and camouflaged in daylight hours. in the northwest the problem of water in the Mongolian deserts was addressed by the creation of water supply units. The 90th Water supply company was charged with collection and distribution. To overcome barbed wire defenses, infantrymen, in spite of the searing summer heat of the desert, were charged with carrying overcoats and cloak tents that could be thrown over barbed wire defenses. Teams of sappers were sent in advance to prepare roads made of logs and brush to cut through the Grand Khingan Mountains. Tactical planning was meticulous.
Infantry assault groups were carefully organized with a range of equipment. ‘Blockading subgroups’ contained two sapper groups while ‘security subgroups’ comprised two rifle platoons, a T-34 tank and artillery. Each subgroup also carried high explosives for demolishing bunkers. The crushing success of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria was in large part the result of the detailed logistical planning by Marshal Vasilevsky and his senior commanders.
Soviet Invasion of Northwest Manchuria from Mongolia: On the western borders of Manchuria with Mongolia, the Soviet invasion began with a charge over the barren wastes and gentle hills of the Inner Mongolian plains, toward the Grand Khinghan Mountains 190 miles away, where the Japanese 107th Infantry were garrisoned within elaborate fortifications. as they set off, General Ivan Lyudnikov noted,
“soldiers, tanks and guns passed through the hills hidden in the thick and high grass, again appearing on the slopes. And then the sun rose. Figures of people, military machines, and the contours of the hills opened before us as if on morning maneuvers.”22
On the first day Soviet forces led by the 205th Tank Brigade of the 36th Army under the command of Lieutenant-General A.A. Luchinsky, brushed aside the limited opposition of small Japanese garrisons placed in isolated desert towns. The first sixty-five miles were covered in a single day. The only obstacles were the swamps along the Argun River and the sandy areas toward Khalkin Gol, the scene of Zhukov’s crushing victory against the Japanese at the Battle of Nomonhan . Luchinsky’s tracked vehicles sped so far ahead of the advancing forces—almost 20 miles at one point—that he was forced to order them to slow down. While the 94th Rifle Corps took the northern route to the Khinghan Mountains, the main body of the 39th Army headed toward the southern reaches.
There were two viable passes through the mountains and the Japanese focused their defenses on these points. When Luchinsky’s forces arrived on 12 August however, the Soviets did not use the Japanese playbook. Instead they forced their way through the mountains, which the Japanese commanders had deemed impassable. The double envelopment left the Japanese 107th Infantry pincered, neither able to advance or retreat. The largest Japanese border force at Qiqihar, where the Japanese Army had developed Unit 516, a chemical warfare defense unit, was duly battered into submission. By 14 August, both Solun and and Wangyeiao, the pillars of the Japanese Fortified region had been captured. a Soviet force, which had underestimated the 50 percent increase in fuel needed to traverse the mountainous passes that their sappers carved through the mountains, thankfully requisitioned the fuel depot at Solun.
Invasion of Northeast Manchuria from Far Eastern Siberia: Unlike the advance in the west, the action in the east was immediate. soldiers of the Soviet 5th Army crossed the border in darkness at 1 a.m on 9 August. at first it was unclear to the Japanese whether they were being attacked. Many believed that the artillery fire was merely night maneuvers to which the Japanese had become inured in previous months. at 3.00 a.m. General Shiina told his officers at the Yeho Officers club that “an element of their [soviet] infantry seems to have broken through the borders”23 and ordered that the border garrison resist until the main force could “destroy the enemy’s fighting power by putting up stubborn resistance in depth in our main defensive positions.”24
Still it was not clear whether it was only a minor incursion as some Japanese commanders believed. There was no clarification as to whether the Soviets were formally at war with Japan until a Tass agency report was received at 4 a.m. on 9 August, three hours after hostilities had been initiated. Tass relayed the information that the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan at 5 p.m. on the previous day, 8 August. It provoked a ‘Pearl Harbor Moment’ among the Japanese leadership, who realized that it had been duped by the Soviets who had led them to believe that they were helping Japan’s peace negotiations in good faith. as the Japanese had done at Pearl Harbor, the Soviets launched a surprise attack before an official declaration of war. Foreign Ministry official, Kase Toshikazu, complained that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria was “the most unkind cut of all . . . we had asked for an olive branch and received a dagger thrust instead.”25 Still the communiqué sent in Hirohito’s name was dismissive of the threat: “However the scale of these attacks is not large.”26
By evening of 9 August elements of the 5th Army had penetrated some 12–28 miles into Manchuria along a 30-mile front. Already Soviet armor was threatening to cut rail, road and telegraph connections to Mutanchiang. a three-day target had been achieved in one. Fleeing Japanese troops arrived at the Muleng River only to find that their colleagues had already blown the bridge and, unable to ford the channels, they were forced to abandon their trucks and heavy equipment and skedaddle downstream of the advancing Soviet forces.
The Soviet progress was so rapid that the Japanese advance garrisons were unable to offer any delay and prevented the 135th, 126th and 124th Divisions from establishing a solid second defensive line. By nightfall of 10 August the Soviets had advanced 55 miles and the following day they achieved their eight-day targets in three. Behind them Japanese fortified regions at Pamientung and Linkou were enveloped. By day eight they had succumbed along with the northeastern coastal town of Chongjin situated inside the north Korean border. The fortified garrison of Hutou, north of the confluence of the Muleng River and Ussuri River (tributaries that fed into the Amur River) was also invested. again the garrison was cut off, leaving just a few soldiers able to make their escape westward toward Mishan and Poli. The remainder settled in for a prolonged siege. as on the Western front, Marshal Kirill Meretskov’s forces penetrated through terrain that had been deemed impassable. This time it was the 1st red Banner Army, which penetrated the mountainous border region.
The Battle of Mutanchiang: With their border forces overwhelmed, General Shiina determined that the Japanese Army’s main forces would make their stand at the mountains that curved in a semi-circle some 40 miles in front of the city of Mutanchiang. situated on the Muleng River and on the main railroad to Harbin in central Manchuria, Mutanchiang was the city through which all Japanese eastern border forces, and indeed the enemy, would have to pass.
The first phase of the battle took place on the ridges overlooking Mutanchiang on 12–14 August. it was some of the bitterest fighting of the war. A Soviet officer described the scene:
“On the heights; among the tangle of trenches, pillboxes, dugouts, and artillery positions; over the precipices; and before the inaccessible grades bellowed tank motors; Japanese guns often struck, and the grass huts and grass blazed. The battle lasted to and fro more than an hour, perhaps the bloodiest since the beginning of the combat. Finally, the enemy faltered, hundreds of retreating soldiers littered the slopes of the hills and valley of marshy streams. The tanks [257th Tank Brigade] pursued the fugitives. The victory was achieved at a heavy price.”27
Having broken through the heights, the Soviet 257th Tank Brigade pursued the enemy to the Mutan River in front of Mutanchiang. Japanese troops had dug in around the main bridge, which was close to Hualin station. Just as the Soviet tanks reached the bridge it was blown up, bringing their column to a halt. At this moment
“From camouflaged foxholes rose up [Japanese] soldiers in greenish tunics, stooping under the heavy loads of mines and explosives, running toward the tanks. Soviet soldiers struck them with point blank fire from automatic weapons, and flung hand grenades. Bursts of tank machine guns mowed down the Smertniks [Kamikaze].”28
Often when Japanese soldiers managed to reach the Soviet tanks their charges failed to penetrate the armor, leaving them little damaged. Only a squad of Japanese firemen from a transport unit, each armed with 15 kilograms of explosive, managed to knock out numbers of Soviet tanks as they approached the headquarters of the Japanese 126th Division in Mutanchiang. Emperor Hirohito had already surrendered that day, 15 August, but the fighting continued. at 10.00 a.m. on 16 August Major-General Perekrestov’s 65th Rifle Corps completed the destruction of Japanese forces east and southeast of Yehho.
Elsewhere fighting drew to a close but, in some instances, long after Japan’s surrender. At Hutou, the fortresses’ bunker constructions, risibly called the ‘Japanese Maginot Line’ by some Japanese officers, were reduced one by one. The war was over but that was probably not known to the Japanese troops hiding in their underground tombs. Gamii Zhefu, one of the few survivors, recalled, “in the tunnels beneath the fort, it was incredibly hot. We were desperate for water.”29 Two weeks later the conditions were indescribable with the starved survivors surrounded by putrid, decaying bodies. Pockets of underground Japanese resistance held out until 26 August when the Soviets brought up poison gas to finish off the holdouts.
For the Japanese civilian survivors worse was to come. rape and pillage, hitherto a prerequisite of the all-conquering Japanese armies, was now visited on Japanese and Manchurian civilians alike by elements of the Red Army. Herded into internment camps and provided with minimal amounts of shelter, food or medicines, disease spread rapidly among the civilian population—killing thousands.
The Battle of Sakhalin Island: Situated off the remote northeast Pacific coast of Russia, at its northern tip some 900 miles north of Vladivostok, Sakhalin is a large elongated island, 560 miles long and up to 174 miles wide, that also abuts due north from Hokkaido, from which it is separated by the 30-mile-wide La Perouse Straits. after 1905 it was occupied up to the 50th parallel by Japan—booty from the Russo- Japanese War. Heavily forested, often swampy, Sakhalin is also mountainous with a central spine, from which rivers take their short course to the sea.
Faced by these unpropitious terrains, the advance southwards, starting on 11 August, by elements of Marshal Vasilevsky’s 16th Army, including the 79th Rifles, 2nd Rifle Brigade, 5th Rifle Brigade and 214th Armored Brigade, made heavy weather. Some 19,000 Japanese troops of the 88th Infantry Division in addition to 10,000 reservists, outnumbered by 3 to 1, mounted a staunch defense. Russian superiority in tanks was greatly diminished by the nature of the terrain; as one Soviet officer reported, “when the tank subunits were assigned their missions, [the command] failed to take into account sufficiently the movement capabilities of various tank systems when being employed in forested, swampy, and road-less terrain.”30
In classic Japanese style, fortified defense areas were made up of entrenchments with machine gun pits and bunkers. Soviet progress was painstaking. It was an amphibious flanking, landing at the port of Toro on the west coast of Sakhalin on 16 August, which finally broke their resistance. A 140-man reconnaissance detachment quickly captured the barely defended port and 1,500 troops of the 365th Naval Infantry Battalion and 2nd Battalion of the 113th Rifle Brigade were brought ashore. Japanese forces along the west coast were cut off and the rapid march eastward threatened their line of retreat. Thereafter the Soviet advance southward moved rapidly. The conquest of Sakhalin was completed on 25 August when the capital city of Toyohara was taken.
The Occupation of the Kuril Islands: The sparsely populated tendrils of the Kuril Islands chain stretch out in a gentle curve from northern Hokkaido to the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. They comprise 56 mostly uninhabited islands. Historically their greatest claim to fame in the Pacific War was their covert hosting of the Japanese carrier fleet at Hitokappu Bay off the island of Iturup before its deployment to attack Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Starting with US bombing attacks on Japanese garrisons on the main islands of Shumshu and Paramushiro on 10 July 1943, the Kurils were the subject of periodic US raids until the end of the war. However, at Yalta it was agreed that the Soviets would occupy the Kurils along with Sakhalin Island, which had been Japanese possessions since the Treaty of Portsmouth after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5.
Even as Hirohito was surrendering, Soviet troops were preparing to make amphibious landings on the Kuril Islands. At 2.35 a.m. on 18 August, as a Soviet amphibious force approached Shumshu Island, their batteries on cape Lopataka (Kamchatka Peninsula), just an 8-mile stretch across the sea, opened fire on the intended landing areas. Thus warned Japanese coastal batteries opened fire on the soviet invasion forces at 5.30 a.m.—sinking thirteen troop boats.
In spite of the chaotic amphibious action, a rare experience for the Red Army in World War II, Soviet troops established a beachhead and moved inland to attack Japan’s main naval base at Kataoka. After two days of heavy fighting, including tank battles, in which 614 Japanese troops lost their lives, at 5.00 p.m. on 19 August, Lieutenant- General Aleksei Gnechko met his counterpart Major-General Suzino Iwao and accepted his surrender. By 29 August, the central and northern Kurils had been occupied by forward detachments of the Kamchatka Defensive region. The day before, the Soviet Pacific Fleet, under Vice-admiral alexander Andreev, with the support of the 113rd Rifle Brigade, began the seizure of the southern half of the Kuril chain. The 13,500 strong Japanese garrison on Iturup surrendered without a fight. The Lesser Kurils, in the final action of the Pacific War, were occupied on 3–5 September.
The Soviet annexation of the Kurils ensured a long running dispute as to ownership of the islands that continues to this day. Although Japan renounced its claims to Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands in the Treaty of San Francisco , it maintains that the four islands immediately adjacent to Hokkaido were not included. As a result, there is as yet no formal peace treaty to the Pacific War between Russia and Japan.
The Significance of the Soviet Invasions: In itself the Soviet invasion of Manchuria was of little military importance or consequence even though some 674,000 Japanese troops were killed or captured. The cost for the Red Army may have been seemingly low at 12,000 dead and 24,000 sick and wounded but in reality, if Stalin had waited but a few days for Japan’s surrender, which must have been expected after the atom bombing of Hiroshima, Manchuria could have been acquired cost free. But Stalin was not one to quibble over the lives of his own soldiers. Even if Japan had surrendered on 6 August, the day of the Hiroshima bombing, three days before the commencement of the Soviet invasion, Stalin would still have occupied Manchuria and the northern half of Korea. He was determined to reclaim the territories that had been ceded to Japan after the humiliating defeat of Imperial Russia at the Battle of Tsushima  and the succeeding Treaty of Portsmouth. If that could be achieved with a crushing defeat of Japanese forces, all the better.
As it was, the Soviet invasion brought about the post-war conspiracy theory that America dropped the atom bomb when it did, to stop the Soviets in their tracks—this, it was argued, was the main reason for using an atom bomb on an already defeated enemy. if this was the US government’s theory, which it was not, it would have failed. The Soviets would have occupied former Japanese territories anyway. Stalin had agreed, indeed had allowed himself to be persuaded by Roosevelt at Yalta, to invade Japanese controlled territories. Roosevelt need not have concerned himself—Stalin, once Hitler had been disposed of, was only too happy to exact retribution on Japan and take advantage of its weakened state. He envisioned a post war world in which china would be a buffer vassal nation to the Soviet Union in the Far east, just as the eastern European nations would act as a buffer to Western Europe.
Stalin could have pushed further into China, south Korea and the northern main Japanese island of Hokkaido but chose not to—though he did make the suggestion to Truman, quickly rejected, that the Soviet Army could land in Hokkaido and take the formal Japanese surrender there. as great a villain as he was, Stalin, a cautious man, abided by the letter if not the spirit of Yalta. He occupied the territories that had been agreed but no more. At Yalta Roosevelt, and after his death, Truman, still saw Stalin as an ally and a future partner in global peace and security.
As for the ‘atomic diplomacy’ theory proposed by Gar Alperovitz, Barton Bernstein and others, that the Japanese surrendered largely because of the shock of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria—a critical point in their case that the dropping of the atom bomb was unnecessary—their logic is askew. The Imperial Army HQ was already inured to the idea of losing Manchuria. The filleting of the Manchurian Army of nearly all their good troops and equipment in April 1945 meant that Japan’s leaders had already given up on keeping hold of their empire. Togo and other Japanese leaders may have been shocked as to the timing of the Soviet invasion on 9 August, but they were not so naïve as to believe that it was altogether unlikely that Stalin would exact revenge on a country that had been its main geopolitical enemy for more than half a century. Stalin’s vacillation on any extension of the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact must have given the clue to all but the diplomatically blind—a characteristic that was evident in the conduct of much Japanese diplomacy, both before the Pacific War and at its end.
Although a cabal of Japanese officers based in Switzerland had, in June 1945, tried to initiate a peace deal based on Japan keeping Korea and Formosa as part of the Japanese empire, the plan was barely dignified with a response—even from Tokyo. Manchuria was not even mentioned. The empire was long lost by the spring of 1945 and the Japanese leaders knew it; hence the appropriation by Imperial Army GHQ of experienced army units based in Manchuria. For Hirohito and his army commanders, their last chance rested solely on the defense of Japan; by making its defense too painful to the Us invaders they believed that the allies would agree to a surrender that fell short of unconditional.
Noticeably after the Potsdam Declaration, Japan’s tentative offers to make a conditional surrender through ambassador Sato in Moscow did not include the ‘redline’ retention of Manchuria or any other possession of empire. Nevertheless the invasion of Manchuria was arguably a “psychological jolt comparable to that of the atom bomb.”31 This was not because Japan’s leaders feared the loss of Manchuria—that was already a given—but because it must have been feared that the Soviets might beat the Americans to the beaches of mainland Japan.
It was the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima that first propelled Japan’s military leadership along the path that led to surrender. The atom bombing of Nagasaki and the invasion of Manchuria, both of which followed three days later, merely underlined the futility of further resistance. Ultimately it was the atom bomb, not the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which persuaded emperor Hirohito, the doves and even the majority of the ultranationalist military leaders that their last throw of the dice, the last ditch suicidal defense of Japan’s main islands, was a pointless and untenable strategy.